You know, I got a bunch of book money for Christmas, and I went and spent it all pretty much right away. I got lots of books I'd been wanting for ages (like The Poetic Edda and The Mabinogion), and also a nice big stack of middle grade children's books. Among them was Clare Vanderpool's sophomore novel, Navigating Early.
Introduction: Set in Maine at the end of World War Two, Navigating Early is the story of two boys, Jack Baker and Early Auden. Jack has recently lost his mother, and his father, now a stranger after four years away in the Navy, moves him from his home in Kansas and drops him off at a boarding school in Maine before returning to duty.
Early, on the other hand, grew up at the school. An orphaned autistic savant,* Early is dealing with the death of his older brother, who was killed in the fighting in Europe. Seeing a story in the sequence of numerals making up the number Pi, Early seems to believe the story is true, and that Pi is the name of the main character. But Pi is lost, echoing the loss of Early's brother, and finding him becomes all-consuming.
Both outcasts, Jack and Early form an uneven friendship that takes them on the journey of their lives as they set out alone on the Appalachian Trail to track down a killer bear that Early believes will lead them to Pi and, ultimately, his brother.
My Review: I have a lot of middle grade children's books. For the most part, I have them organized by genre, but one shelf is reserved for my absolute favorite children's books, regardless of genre, author, or time period. Navigating Early has found a place on this prestigious shelf.
This is, quite simply, a great story. There is a LOT going on in this book. There's Jack, dealing with the loss of his mother, the lack of relationship with his father, culture shock, and a boy he doesn't understand. Then there's Early, trying to regain the equilibrium he lost when he got that fateful telegram reporting his brother's death.
The book goes back and forth between real life and Early's narration of Pi's story. To avoid confusion, the Pi sections are their own chapters, and have a different font. These bits are wisely kept pretty short - we basically hear excerpts as we go along - excerpts that end up having relevance later, so don't skim or skip these. It helps that the story of Pi is interesting in its own right, reading rather like a good folk tale. It also becomes heavily symbolic.
There's really only one flaw to the symbolism of Pi's story: As Jack and Early's quest plays out, the parallels become a bit too close for me. In a way, the parallels are really cool; it's fun to see how the author takes some aspect of Early's story, and re-imagines it as a feature of their quest. On the other hand, it starts to feel a little contrived at a certain point. That said, these vignettes, both as they are narrated by Early, and as they are experienced by the boys in real life, are compelling enough to keep you going. That relatively minor irritation is actually overcome later by the compelling aspect of the stories. Also, it was fairly clear to me early on that Early saw Pi as symbolizing his brother, but I had no idea where it was all going - that was well done.
So basically, although you have to suspend a little extra disbelief for this one, Navigating Early is a fascinating, well-written, thoughtful read. This is a book you think about while you're reading it, and continue to think about afterwards.
Sometimes children's books deal with complex ideas so beautifully.
Copyright Date: 2013
Length: 306 pages, including author's note, etc.
Publisher: Yearling (originally Delacorte)
Genre: Sort of historical fiction...? Definitely adventure.
Honor: Michael L. Printz Honor Book
My rating: 4.5 stars
*I have no idea how true-to-life her depiction is, but she seems to have done her research.